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A coalition of some of the nation’s top former judges has penned an open letter calling for the urgent introduction of a national integrity commission to prevent the “serious erosion of our shared democratic principles.”

Former NSW Supreme Court judges David Kirby and Gregory James were among those who signed the letter, as well as former Judges of NSW Court of Appeal Anthony Whealy and Paul Stein. Published this week, it also included the names former High Court Justice Mary Guadron and Family Court Chief Justice Diana Bryant.

“The federal government enters into contracts and makes grants worth hundreds of billions each year. This is public money, held on trust for the nation as a whole, to be spent in the national interest and not for unethical political purposes or illegitimate private gain,” the letter, addressed to the Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Leader of the Opposition Anthony Albanese, and leaders of the Greens, One Nation and the United Australia Party.

“Where billions are to be spent and significant power is available to dispense it with little oversight, greedy people with convenient consciences and powerful connections will ensure that, with the manipulation of their influence, they will obtain illegal or unethical advantage to the detriment of the interests of the general public.

“We are retired judges who believe that a national integrity commission is urgently needed to fill the gaps in our integrity system and restore trust in our political processes. Nothing less than halting the serious erosion of our shared democratic principles is at stake.

“Such a body, if properly designed and led, can be entrusted to act fairly and in accordance with natural justice while having the powers necessary if corruption is to be effectively challenged.

“There must be conferred upon that commission a broad jurisdiction and strong investigative powers, including the power to hold public hearings, and respond to bona fide complaints from the public, so that serious or systemic corruption and misconduct can be adequately investigated and exposed.

“We urge you to use your influence in the next Parliament to ensure that a strong, effective and independent National Integrity Commission is established as a matter of urgency.”

The question of a Federal Integrity Commission has become a key plank of this campaign. The Prime Minister believes it is not needed. The Opposition Leader says Labor will introduce a federal corruption watchdog if elected. Several high-profile independent candidates, including Allegra Spender in Wentworth and Zoe Daniel in Goldstein in Victoria, have made introducing a national integrity commission one of their policy priorities.

The Law Council of Australia, in its April 2022 call to parties ahead of the May 21 election, wrote for a commitment to “develop legislation establishing and governing an effective Commonwealth Integrity Commission, and budget appropriate resourcing.”

“A Commonwealth Integrity Commission should be aimed at addressing serious and systemic corrupt conduct, be empowered to hold public hearings where a closed hearing would be unfair to the person or contrary to the public interest, be heavily focused on education and corruption prevention, and should have consistent processes, powers and requirements when dealing with law enforcement and other public sector corruption,” the submission said.

“The establishment of a Commonwealth Integrity Commission should be accompanied by strong measures to safeguard the quality of appointment of heads of this and other Commonwealth integrity agencies, to ensure that their substantive and perceived independence is beyond question.”